Thinking of Sex Work as Work

Acknowledging the diversity of experiences among sex workers is crucial to safety and respect.
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Cover art from Melissa Gira Grant's Playing the Whore (Verso)

Writer Melissa Gira Grant's forthcoming book, Playing the Whore, is a short, focused effort to change the way we publicly talk and think about prostitution and sex work. Rather than focusing on the "sex" part—the risqué acts at which we can shiver in prurience or horror—Grant suggests we focus on "work." By doing so, she argues, sex workers become neither corrupters who need purging, nor victims who need rescuing, but workers who need the sorts of things all workers need—access to healthcare, a safe work environment, and protection from abuse and exploitation.

In the interview below I talk with Grant about sex work and labor, and their relationship to feminism and gay rights.


What is the greatest danger sex workers face? Or what is the most important thing sex workers need? Or are those the wrong questions?

They're impossible questions to answer because people's needs are diverse and people's experiences are diverse. So I think that's the first place to start. There is no one solution, there is no one project, there is no one political point of view that can possibly speak to every single person who has experience in the sex trade.

But starting with the first part, what is the biggest danger? I really think that having to live under systems of criminalization such as that in the United States, where almost everything having to do with selling or buying sex is criminal and often completely unregulated. It's incredibly difficult for people to protect their rights as human beings and workers, to ensure that their civil rights are respected, when you're working in an environment that says, "Well, this isn't actually a job, you kind of get what you deserve. And even more so, you might be a criminal."

Now the new tendency is to call you a victim of the sex industry. So, the problem is not that you've experienced victimization in the sex industry, the problem you have is "the sex industry," and the way we're going to resolve that problem is to remove you from it.

That is a one-prong approach, which is going to fail a lot of people because that's not what people are telling you their problem is when they say, "I experienced an abusive customer." Or, "I experienced a police officer impersonating a customer in order to get free sex from me, and then threatened to arrest me if I didn't do that." Or even when someone says, "I called in sick today at the strip club where I work and I got fined $200, so now I'm going to show up at work the next time owing them money. That feels coercive and exploitative, and also why am I being fined for being sick?" Who else gets fined for being sick?

So, talking about the differences of experience in sex work, I wondered if you had thoughts on ex-sex workers who support abolition. I know that Andrea Dworkin was a sex worker for example, and there are some anti-porn former porn workers. So what do you say to them, or how to you respond to their arguments or concerns?

When you're making policy about the sex industry, we need to engage with the diversity of experiences that people have. And those experiences are not going to be universally great. I feel like there's this myth that if you have any sort of policy approach towards the sex industry that stops short of absolute abolition, and you're a sex worker, then that must mean you love the sex industry and you think that sex work is great.

And that's not the case. There are many people who have had incredibly negative experiences in sex work who would rather not do sex work—who would rather do anything else—and fit that stereotype of someone who has been victimized by the industry. But they don't define themselves as victims in the industry and they don't want to abolish the industry. They want to have the ability to work safely if that is the work that they are doing, have to do, or find themselves doing. Just as there is a continuum of ways in which people get into sex work, whether through choice or circumstance or coercion, no matter what your experience of sex work is, that doesn't graph neatly onto whether you are pro-industry or anti-industry.

It's entirely possible to be anti-sex work but pro-sex workers rights. And I want to open up space for people to talk about that. To say, "I think this work can be exploitative, I think this work can be dangerous, but I know that the way to be safe isn't to wait for abolition." It's to look at how we can actually help people here and now.

I feel like these aren't necessarily exclusive things. There can be people who want to abolish the sex industry that also have care, compassion, and interest in the here-and-now needs of sex workers. It's such a mistake to say that sex workers who are fighting for harm reduction or [against] criminalization are somehow throwing others under the bus. Reducing the harm of criminalization is going to benefit anybody in the sex industry, no matter how they got there. Giving people access to what they need to care for their health or families is going to increase the well-being of anybody in the sex industry, no matter how they got there. That stance is being mischaracterized as somehow ignoring this more important project of abolition.

I wish that people who are very committed to abolition could hear that there might be sex workers who would support you in that project, but their priorities are making it through this week. Their priorities right now are what they need to do to survive, and are you also listening to those needs that they have?

When it's mostly people arguing for criminalization who may have experience in the sex industry but are no longer doing the work, that criminalization is not going to fall upon them. I question whether they are the people who should necessarily be arguing for that.

At one point you talk about an alliance of anti-prostitution forces including some feminists, right-wing groups, and the police. The one you focus most on, or argue most with, though, seems like it's the anti-prostitution feminists. Why is that?

It's particularly close to home because I am a feminist, and if it weren't for the feminist analysis I would be missing so many things that have helped me understand myself, my place in the world, and politics in general. But it's also with some grief, because I feel like the reason feminism is so lacking in sound analysis around sex workers is that mainstream feminism has been so effective at shutting sex workers out.

That is something that was not the case for the entire history of feminism. If you look back to the early history of feminism, there was a moment where some feminists were really grappling with how they understood prostitution, and even if they characterized prostitutes as the most oppressed among us, they weren't necessarily engaged with the police and the right-wing to increase the criminalization of prostitution.

In many cases their analysis did not include sex workers themselves; they didn't think to include that most oppressed class in their own meetings and conferences and papers. It was actually sex workers who showed up and said, "You can't talk about us without us," and I think that was a moment of possibility of actual inclusion. As feminism was opening up about talking about work, and how women of color were excluded from these kinds of clichéd feminine mystique ideas, I would put the struggle around sex work in that moment. Just as many women felt sidelined and excluded by feminism, so did sex workers; that's the grief.

What differences or similarities do you see between gay rights and sex worker rights?

The parallel that the book starts with is that there's a person called a "prostitute" just as there's a person called the "homosexual." Prior to the end of the 19th century these were acts that people committed—they committed sodomy or they committed whoring—but these weren’t identities. More to the point, these weren't identities that emerged from the people themselves. These were identities that were imposed upon them from without.

Moving ahead in history about a hundred years, you get to the dawn of the sex-workers rights movement, which is dawning about the same time as the gay liberation movement. They're inseparable movements. At the hallmark moments of gay liberation, whether that's Stonewall or even going back a year or two earlier to the Compton's Cafeteria riots in San Francisco, the people who put themselves on the line in those early struggles—which were struggles with the police—were also people who were in the sex trade. That identity was so closely linked with outlaw sexuality at that time.

There are so many organizations that do work around sex work that are majority queer organizations. What does that say? Does that say these are the people who come forward because they have experience in gay liberation or gay struggle? Or is it because so many sex workers are queer? I don't know at this point. But when you actually look at the people who are doing the work in sex-workers rights organizing, there's a lot of queer people and a lot of trans people.

You can't really pull this apart or say this is a gay rights project or a sex workers project, because this is the reality of whoever is stigmatized in this society. This is the reality of who is considered an outlaw. This is the reality of who is considered disposable.

Along those lines, I wondered what you thought about the success of the gay marriage movement in terms of organizing around sex work?

I have vivid memories of being out as bisexual in high school, and then later identifying as queer in college, and having gay marriage seem like something that was so unimaginable even in my young adulthood that I would turn around to see that it was real. So part of me says it has defied my political imagination.

But it wasn't at the top of my list and I don't think of it as the top of many people's lists in the communities that I'm talking about. I think there are fights that are hard to turn away from. I mean, even in the communities in San Francisco we felt like we had to fight for it. How could you not?

With gay marriage, though, the devil is in the details. What happens to people who don't want to get married if marriage is going to be our gateway into healthcare, into being respected? And people ask the same questions about decriminalization.

I see the sex workers rights movement pulling away from decriminalization in some of the same ways that the gay rights movement is pulling away from gay marriage. In the sense of, "Let's think about this a little more pragmatically. What do we really want?" We want to be regarded as equals. We want to be afforded the same access to public accommodation and services as anybody else does. Is the way to do that to attach it to our relationships?

So looking at decriminalization, if we waved a wand and got rid of criminalization tomorrow, that doesn't necessarily change the way policing happens in this country. It doesn't necessarily change health access.

But it does change the way policing would happen, wouldn't it?

Well, so the police can't arrest you for prostitution. But they can certainly target you for other kinds of things. I think a lot of what motivates a lot of anti-prostitution on the street level, which isn't even where the majority of prostitution is happening, is the same thing that motivates stop and frisk. It's a way to police communities of color, it's a way to police low-income communities, it's a way to police people for gender nonconformity. Those prejudices are still going to exist, whether the charge they put on you is prostitution, disorderly conduct, something else. The change is a lot deeper than just one law.

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Noah Berlatsky is a correspondent for The Atlantic. He edits the online comics-and-culture website The Hooded Utilitarian and is the author of a forthcoming book on the original Wonder Woman comics.

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